Fly on the Wall—Every Picture Tells a Story

But not the Whole Story

Elementary school class photos are as ubiquitous as report cards and leave a lot to be desired when answering that timeless question: how is school going? From kindergarten on through graduation, these wallet-sized mementos tell only a fragment of the story of our schooling.  For instance, many hijinks are left out of the picture.  Nowhere in a yearbook or class picture does one see a juice box foot bomb (where you stomp a full carton of fruit nectar and scare the bejesus out of your classmates), or the infamous toilet paper rip tides (such as the tried and true, yet absent from Harry Potter, act of stuffing a toilet bowl so that it overflows).

Ok, maybe those two examples aren’t as universally prevalent as they were at my elementary school, but you get the idea.  Yet a lot remains absent from those artfully presented 3” by 5” pictures that get handed out to friends and relatives every year.  Happily, at AU our fancy new student ID card is a mere scanner click away and we are allowed more leeway in our self-presentation than, say, a passport photo! (AU Student and Academic Services, online).

Looking Out, Looking In; Inversions and Projections

Lots is missing from a staged photograph or even from a work of art; the Mona Lisa is interpretively famous for whatever it is that she is smiling at or about or in response to.  With art, we reflect upon the object of our gaze as it seems to encounter us with a life of its own.  The Mona Lisa seems to be saying something to us; good art functions to implore us to think deeply about meaning or to encounter strong emotions or unsettling imagery.   It’s true that our school photos bring to mind stories and emotions, but this is only because the simple pictures trigger deeper memories.  They incite interpretation by way of memory.  Taken on its own, such photos have limited appeal because every student looks about the same: dressed up nicely and wearing a benign, if forced, smile.

Even a school photo’s innocuous background of vague patterns or dull leaves betrays no detail of school life as it’s actually lived.  No bullies lurk in the shadows and no true loves await under the bleachers.   School photos all look basically the same.  There is not a blander cheese in the world than the one we had to say as kids.  So, to interpretively take these pictures as they are is to completely miss their forced and contrived nature.  In fact, a truer picture might be derived from viewing a multitude of humorous outtakes that capture with clairvoyant precision the actual character and persona of each individual student in all their stunningly precocious glory.  Happily, in 2019 the world is a video playground and kids are movie stars in a way parents could only dream of back in the day.

AU Life; Less Peers, More Pure?

Here at AU we don’t have to perpetually present ourselves for photos or otherwise.  However, our studies aren’t more pure because they are outside the social snake pit of a classroom setting.  It’s true that AU grants us the privacy of engaging fully with our minds (and hearts) on course material ranging from the compelling (sociology statistics related to gun ownership) to the harrowing (anthropological practices such as genital cutting).  But we all arrive with baggage at the study table of our dreams.  This we must interpret and comprehend if we are to throw ourselves headlong into new learning.

Not only has our earlier schooling gone into making us who we are, but patterns of precognitive reality formed our selves before we even possessed self-awareness.  There’s a creepy uncanny oddness implicit when a family member says they knew who we’d be even when we were babies; after all, we didn’t know ourselves yet!  Others interpreted our actions in a way that, either retroactively or with loving clairvoyance, painted a richer ontological picture than our little brains were privy to.  Like an episode of Bob Ross, we are painted into reality and drawn into being.  We weren’t fully us until we formed a picture of ourselves to ourselves.  To this day, as we continue to grow and evolve, we invariably remain unaware of all of our ingredients.  Some might even be unpronounceable!

So who’s that person in the mirror or selfie? It depends on who you ask.  And if that person is ourselves it may well depend on the day.  From an AU point of view, as we gaze down the barrel of new course material, we can’t assume an aloof posture and expect to just interact with and absorb our textbooks as though we are empty vessels awaiting fulfilment.  We come pre-programmed and, particularly in the social sciences, we likely have already formed opinions on a given course’s key themes.  As humans we naturally adopt social norms, values and ideologies and to question these requires a certain interrogation of our intuitions.   Once aware that we contain and embody core beliefs from the rest of our life, past present, we can interpret our studies with a greater and more dutiful degree of objectivity.  We might even discover a new version of our future we’d not imagined yet!

Interpretation in Many Guises

Susan Sontag, 55 years ago, claimed that to truly get a piece of art or other artifact of social reality, we must actually resist the urge to interpret the piece and just let it be as it is.  Student photos may not be art so much as craft but they do tend to come to represent the whole of us in the eye of others; sometimes, what’s left out is what’s most important.

Asking what a piece of art is to us requires us to ask what it is in itself, if anything.  A tree falling in the forest may make a sound but the concept of sound itself contains a lot of social definitions.  Bang, crash!  There’s a lot more going on there that’s wholly outside the world of physics.  Springing to mind are a whole series of calamities separate from the gravitational essence of the act and any photos taken thereof.   Why did the tree fall; was it cut, or did it die of natural causes?  And what was in the path of its descent? However, and here we may hear echoes of peers who wonder, aghast or annoyed, at our newfound powers of analysis (thanks to our AU studies), Sontag states that we humans have, in modern times, been conditioned to over-think when it comes to works of art and life itself.

Imagine A World Before Screens

Prior to the predominance of colour television, when buses and subways were jammed with newspapers and their attendant readers, and telegrams conveyed notes of love and longing spiced with ‘stops’, Sontag outlined her position on what she deemed to be an over-intellectuality of interpretation.  To Sontag, interpretation “is the revenge of the intellect upon the world.  To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings.’ It is to turn the world into this world.  (‘This world’! As if there were any other.) The world, our world, is depleted, impoverished enough.  Away with all duplicates of it, until we again experience more immediately what we have.” (Sontag, online)

Each artful depiction would seem to contain a prescription that functions to ruin the spontaneity of the original.  Here we can immediately think of the angst imposed upon objects of photography when asked to perform the seemingly simple task of smiling.  When animals smile, baring their teeth, it’s an aggressive snarl but somehow humans have learned to value the motor functions attended by this facial grimace.  For Sontag a natural smile is irreplaceable and cannot be duplicated any more than a great work of art can be reduced to a scholarly essay.  She has a point in that much can be lost in translation.  School photos give a paltry account of the educational process in the same way that a degree, famously derided as a mere piece of paper, fails to express the lifelong enrichment that an AU education provides.

Context Requires Consideration

So experiencing the fullness of life and art is Sontag’s goal.  What a great world that’d be, if we can imagine it.  But what is there without that which gives something context? Can we deign to imagine ourselves out of the mental focus that gives our consciousness form? Curiously, Sontag leaves out how we may see something (including ourselves) differently at different times.  Waking up on the proverbial wrong side of the bed can affect a whole day and the natural interpretations of life contained therein.

In a practical sense AU gives us the tools to succeed in direct interaction with our course materials.  Like a prisoner in solitary confinement given his choice of ethnic cuisine (samosas?) and vices (coffee?), we have the basics provided.  Textbooks and a tutor give essential, if skeletal, form to our studies and its up to us to make sense of it all.  If our studies were a class picture, Sontag would have us see things exactly as they are, or were, or appear to be.  Schooling is what we make of it and that’s the unvarnished truth.

Social Media: The Art of Interpretation

However, today we don’t have to rely on that once a year moment of individual school photos to present to the world the case for our awesomeness.  Social media provides participants a chance to curate and express their lives.  But no matter what pictures or links or memes we post to the web there will always be detractors, cynics, and roustabouts waiting to pounce and critique.

Sontag does seem to anticipate this problem of being misunderstood by an audience; she notes that “interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone.  Real art has the capacity to make us nervous.  By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art.  Interpretation makes art manageable, comformable.” (Sontag, online).

Sontag rightly sees interpretation as potentially an act of vandalism on the work of art itself.  After all, artists have artist statements and, should we choose to use them, photos on social media typically allow us to provide a caption for explication.  But anything we say can and will be used against us.  Gratefully, our AU studies don’t place us in such a fishbowl of social judgement.  We can write essays on course topics without too much concern that we are taking an unpopular stance.  This academic freedom can only broaden our scholarly scope.

On social media we’re stuck between the rock of our own words being infinitely interpretable and the hard place of the reality that our consciousness itself is an evolved and evolving thing.  We’re never precisely who we were yesterday, and we can not be certain who we shall become tomorrow.  A fun test of this is to look back over past course notes and textbooks and see what we wrote in the margins.  Interesting from a Sontagian point of view is the fact that much academic material nowadays is digitized, such that we cannot write our comments into the margins per se, or at least not as readily.  Digital pdfs in a sense limit interpretation.  Likewise, Heidegger, in his time, famously criticized typewriters as alienating the hand from the craftsmanship of written creation.  We might think also of Lucille Ball foundering in a factory or the scene of a writer being borne fecklessly along by the machinery of her word-presser come to mind with frightening ease.  Damn you, autocorrect, right?

What Are We Saying When We Are Seeing?

Essential to the psychology of over-thinking a creative work, says Sontag, is that “interpretation of this type indicates a dissatisfaction (conscious or unconscious) with the work, a wish to replace it by something else.” (Sontag, online).  Often AU studies begin with us only knowing what we think about a topic and then, gradually, we add new information and theories so that we can learn new meanings.

In other words, in University we learn to critically interpret the world around us.  With works of art, no matter the proverb that art is never really done, the finality of the work suggests singular meaning as well as openness of interpretation.  What we learn to do in our academic studies is to apply conscious interpretation rather than unconscious projection of our personal facts and fantasies onto what we see, hear and read.  In this sense Sontag aptly reasons us away from the tendency to pigeonhole everything we encounter onto familiar terrain of meaning.

Sontag ends her plea to reduce interpretation and apprehend the world on its own terms with the phrase: “In place of hermeneutics we need an erotics of art” (Sontag, online.)  To interpret is often to limit meaning to a particular point of view; if we proceed with our AU studies with as open a mind as possible, we allow ourselves to glean the most from our studies.  In terms of the art of education, we are all creative scholars; each essay is a personal world of art as we dance with learning objectives and create new worlds of meaning and, yes, interpretation.

And Now a Word from The Unique Realm of Art

While a class photo limits life to its limited realm, the rest of life has an artfulness all its own.  In 1925 the Soviet art theorist A.K. Voronsky claimed that artists and artfulness are of a special sort, an almost mystical blend of insight and craft that reveals new avenues of exploration and consideration.  He literally saw art as an essential aspect of the cognition of life, a potential we all enjoy (Voronksy, online).  We might therefore consider our distance studies as embodying an art of learning.

Voronsky wrote that “Intuition, inspiration, creativity, or feeling are the names we give to opinions, truths, or the sum of notions and ideas of which we are certain, without being assisted by conscious, analytical thought.  In intuition, necessary ideas and opinions are formed in the sphere of the unconscious.  They erupt onto the surface of consciousness suddenly, immediately and unexpectedly.  They are not the simple play of feelings and imagination.  We know, we feel, or we sense that it is so, but this (intuitive) knowledge is not achieved through logic” (Voronksy, online).  Our received life logic acquired through non-academic development thus comes to face new ideas and intuitions about the world we live in; they don’t call it the sociological imagination for nothing.

Being open to new academic realms means we suspend quick judgement, the type that makes it a byline of internet savvy that we not read the comments section—because so many people fail to give a level-headed personal analysis of material—and reserve our interpretation until such time as we have read, viewed, or heard the entire text under consideration.  Schooling can be a lovely process that teaches us to think critically besides simply taking subject matter as it first appears.  At AU, knowledge acquisition meets creative germination as we grow to see the world in new and educated ways.

Next week we’ll enlist Charles Darwin to consider the value of interpretation when it comes to other species and specifically their human-like behaviour and mannerisms.

Sontag, S.  (1964).  Against Interpretation Retrieved from
Student and Academic Resources.  (2017).  “Student ID Cards” Office of the Registrar: Athabasca University.  Retrieved from
Voronksy, A.K.  (1998).  ‘On Art’.  Art as the Cognition of Life, Aleksandr Konstantinovich Voronsky, Selected Writings 1911 – 1936, Translated and edited by Frederick S. Choate., Mehring Books.
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